I want my clients to begin their experimentation into the social world by making impressions. In order to do this, they must be out and about. Often times, individuals I work with do not come in to visit with me until self-esteem has begun to suffer. As a result, I may also be dealing with some mood difficulties. My role, provided that we are not dealing with a clinically significant major depressive disorder, is to begin coaching the individual with regard to the behavior preceding the mood. In other words, my clients often times do not feel like they would like to go to the football game on Friday or feel up to attending the homecoming dance. This consistently comes up in my social skills groups where at least one child does not want to participate or feel like they need to be a part of the group. They have yet to experience the behavior of being in the group so how in the world would they know that they won’t like it? Despite the potential to sustain the current social difficulties, there is usually at least one parent who gives in and allows their child to avoid attending the group. Progress can never be made when this happens.
Staying home will do nothing more than exacerbate the current feeling (I don’t need to go to a group or be social). Instead, the behavior must come before the desired feeling. Specifically, individuals must attend the football game or they must attend the dance before they can begin to truly experience the feeling of improved self-esteem, for example. Most of my clients, although they object to this initially, return to my office to inform me that although going to the dance or football game was the very last thing that they wanted to do on that particular evening, once they were there it was not so bad and they actually ended up enjoying themselves. Keep in mind that although I use dances and sports games as examples, the behaviors preceding the mood applies to all ages: going to the playgroup, playground, birthday party, etc.
I think it’s also important to illustrate that we must take the pressure of social skills off of these individuals. In other words, there is no expectation when we are just getting started with making impressions other than the individual simply must attend events. That’s it, plain and simple: attend the event or activity. I don’t care if you talk to anyone. I don’t care if you make any eye contact with anyone. We have plenty of time to work on that. One of the biggest hurdles that I see is getting my clients to leave their home because they often do not feel like it. This is the time that I remind individuals that the behavior must often precede the mood.
This is important because individuals who are feeling dejected or otherwise depressed in any manner may not have the energy, confidence, or motivation to make that initial leap into the social world. My response is that continuing to avoid the social world only exacerbates the current difficulties. I am not asking for these individuals to go out on any particular evening or to attend any particular event and come home with a new friend or social group. I am simply asking that they be seen in the social environment and thus make an impression. The behavior preceding the mood is important because these individuals may not feel like being social on any particular evening. In fact, this often perpetuates the addiction cycle of video games as a self-medicating remedy. Indeed, they will use video games as means of avoidance or as an excuse for why they won’t attend (“I don’t want to go because I’m really into this game…don’t bother me!”).
Client after client returns to my office to tell me that although they were very upset with me and did not want to go to the school dance or football game they took a risk (with the help of sufficient support and encouragement) and they went. Although they felt ‘awful’ prior to attending the event, once they were there they realized it wasn’t so bad. Further, the strategy of simply being in the social environment paid off because there were no pressures to achieve any outcome other than attendance. I know we would all like to jumpstart this process and in our typical American fashion get to the outcome quicker and without much work. Unfortunately, it does not work that way when dealing with social interactions. If you are not prepared to take the preliminary steps you will not be successful. If you rush this process you will not be successful. Take your time and be willing to take a risk. Some discomfort is inevitable before progress can be achieved.
“Progress always involves risk; you can’t steal second base and keep your foot on first.” –Frederick Wilcox
Dr. Mark Bowers is a Licensed Pediatric Psychologist at the Ann Arbor Center for Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
© 2009 Mark Bowers, Ph.D.